Elected leaders of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe have voted to turn away from plans to convert an unfinished community center into a gambling facility, and instead use the vacant building for its original purpose, tribe members said this week.
At a meeting last week, the tribal council of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) voted to transfer control of the building from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corp., the tribe’s gaming arm, back to the council itself, according to tribe members familiar with the proceedings.
That step signaled the leadership’s intention to finish work on the 6,500-square-foot building and put it to use as a community center, they said.
“We are moving forward with the completion of the community center as a community center. That’s a great development,” tribal council chairman Tobias Vanderhoop told the Gazette by telephone Thursday. Mr. Vanderhoop declined to discuss the details of the meeting, saying they involve internal tribe matters. But he said the tribe is not backing away from pursuing its rights to casino gambling. “At this time, we are working on two fronts,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “The tribe also believes there are federal [gaming] rights that are available to us or should be available to us that we are continuing to fight for [through the courts].”
On the legal front, the tribal council has authorized an appeal of a federal judge’s decision last November that dealt a setback to the gambling venture. U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor 4th ruled that the tribe did not have the right to operate a gaming facility on its land at the remote western tip of the Island.
Tribal council meetings are not open to the public. But reports from the Jan. 20 session indicated that it lasted several hours, mainly over the future of the community center building.
The vote, reported to be 9-2, in effect reverses a council decision last year to transfer the building’s oversight to the gaming corporation, a necessary step on the path to opening an electronic bingo facility (class II gambling).
Mr. Vanderhoop declined to speculate whether the community center might someday be converted into a gambling facility, if the tribe eventually prevails in its legal fight. “All appropriate preparations” are being made to finish the building for its original purpose, he said.
“All I can tell you is we are going to work very hard to make it the best gathering space for our community as we possibly can,” he said.
The tribe has faced a deadline either to complete the building as a community center, or refund about $1.1 million in grants secured from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The tribe and HUD officials recently negotiated an extension of the deadline to Sept. 1.
Construction on the building, with help from U.S. Air Force reservists, began in 2004. Plans have included a gymnasium, stage, locker rooms and kitchen, and ultimately a day care center, elder center and classroom. But the building has sat unfinished and unused for years. Then last summer, preliminary site work was begun to convert the center to a bingo hall, prompting the town of Aquinnah to gain a court order to halt the activity.
Tribal member Jason Widdiss, who lives with his family in tribal housing close to the community center, hailed the vote as a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s a very positive thing for the tribe, in the best interests of the tribe,” he said. “It can be something that can bring us back together.”
A community center could play host to a whole range of beneficial activities for tribal members, including athletic endeavors, programs for the elderly and business development courses, he said.